Slab, corridorSlab, gallery-access, skip stop
Siza, Alvaro | Porto, Portugal | 1973-77, 2001-2006
Image of Bouça
Oblique view along the stair access side of a typical 4-story block.

ArchitectSiza, Alvaro
AddressRua de Boavista/Rua Marti Liberdade/Rua das Águas Ferreas
Building TypeSlab, gallery-access, skip stop
Number of Dwellings126
Date Built1973-77, 2001-2006
Dwelling Types2 br. maisonettes
No. Floors4
Section Typemaisonettes
Exterior Finish
stucco, wood windows
Construction Typemasonry
Ancillary Servicesparking and public facilities

(written 1988)

Shortly after the Portugese April 25th Revolution of 1974, an organization called Servicio de Apoio Ambulatorio Local (SAAL) was formed to seek state aid to alleviate poor housing conditions in Portugal. Álvaro Siza worked for SAAL between 1973 and 1977, and during this time designed two housing projects in Porto, Bouça and the Sao Victor row houses. SAAL power was sharply reduced after the right wing coup of November 25, 1975, and its activities virtually suppressed by the end of 1976.

Bouça is a difficult site that backs up to an elevated railway embankment in an area just north of the commercial center of Porto. Siza saw the problem of building in this slum area as one of “forming a whole with ruins.” The idea was to create an exaggerated double wall along the tracks at the north edge of the site to protect the apartments from the sound of the trains and also to order the site. Four parallel but discontinuous rows of 3 & 4 story row houses were attached perpendicular to this wall forming 4 narrow courtyards. The southern end of each row was to contain community facilities, laundry, library and community meeting spaces, as part of a formal strategy to complete the ends of the rows, define entrance to the courtyards between rows, front the street to the south, and connect formally to the existing apartment buildings at the south-east corner of the site. Unfortunately, only part of the two eastern rows were built, none of the wall and community spaces, and the spaces between remain barren and completely undeveloped.

The two building fragments that remain are 4-floors high and consist of 2-stacked back-to-back maisonettes four floors high. Stairs, which in the original scheme were to have been part of the retaining wall along the tracks, give access to an open gallery at the 3rd floor and the upper maisonettes. The lower dwelling is 80 m2 in size. The top apartment is smaller (74 m2 ) because the buildings step back at the top floor forming terraces at each end. In the original scheme, stairs giving access to the open galleries on the upper floors were to have been built into the north retaining wall and the southern ends of each block. The lower maisonettes have access at grade with individual exterior stairs to the second floor. In the easterly block, that straddles a slope, the bottom two floors are flats with access to each at grade. The top maisonette has a kitchen, living, and bedroom at the gallery level with 2 bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. In the ground floor maisonettes, the bedrooms are on the lower level and living spaces above, with a second external stair connecting to the upper floor. The upper dwellings have small balconies and a small recessed entry porch. There are two types of windows, a tall narrow French type, which is used at the bedrooms, entrances, and living areas and a hopper type that is used horizontally at the top of the stairs beneath the gallery on the lower maisonette. A single panel version of the tall type also forms a narrow doorway at the top of the external stairs. There is only one window per room but the windows occur in different positions on different floors resulting in very simple but compositionally rich facades. The narrow windows have balustrades and thus double as small balconies on the upper floors. As the building has been used, residents have enclosed some of the balconies and terraces, taking advantage of an obvious opportunity to increase useable interior space.

While Siza’s design fits within the genre of Modernist European housing of the 1920’s and there is a similar elementary architectural vocabulary being applied—white, plaster walls, elementary geometry, a lack of decoration, and simple openings—Siza’s work is distinctly different and embraces references to local building traditions. The virtual volume of the 4 story block is eroded at the top floor by terracing back at the top floor, by changing the color of the walls from top to bottom, and by letting parts of the wall either extend forward of or recess back from the primary wall surface.

Update 2007

Siza’s SAAL projects were conceived and built under the most trying and difficult conditions. The acute shortage of housing at this time in Portugal, the extreme political situation following the collapse of the Salazar government, a severe shortage of building materials and the capital to build, and the untenable situation that the architect was thrown into as the arbitrator of what was essentially a political situation where all factors contributing to an extremely volatile milieu in which to try to build anything. The use of two-story dwellings must have been a particularly contentious issue, seemingly incompatible with the limitations of an impoverished population. Not surprising, both Bouça and Sao Victor were scaled back in size from their original designs. Of the approximately 130 dwellings planned for Boça, only about1/3 of the planned dwellings were actually built and the 12 row houses at Sao Victor were just one part of a larger renewal area. None of the other infrastructure was built at Bouça including the concrete wall along the north edge to limit train noise, the community spaces at the south ends of the 4 slab buildings, the building and landscaping of the courtyards between buildings, and the end stairs to the upper galleries. When construction was halted in 1976, only two fragments of the 4, four-story blocks had been built and for the next two decades, these two derelict blocks were left standing alone in an empty place, surrounded by trash-littered, dirt fields. Because the end buildings and stairs were never built, makeshift timber frames had been made to support open wooden stairs extending from the gallery levels. Perhaps the most striking difference between the original site concept that employed a combination of linear slabs and walls and articulated elements to fit to the surrounding, continue existing surfaces and conditions, and define space and the built version of 2 partial slabs, however, was that an incomplete urbanism of articulated solids had replaced a concept of articulated voids; free-standing buildings vs. enclosed courtyards. Indeed, a challenge for photographers was how to record the two slabs and make them appear as anything other than two freestanding linear blocks.

But, even though the buildings were poorly maintained and building details had suffered at the hands of the tenants, most of the original concepts survived more-or-less intact. The striking quality of the geometric forms, the repetitive but hierarchical composition of the facades, and the architectural elements resulting from the unique section of back-to back maisonettes, all added to the effect of an almost timeless archaeological dig. Less obvious, but equally important and hardly visible from the exterior, were the spatially sophisticated qualities of the apartment interiors themselves, two- story dwellings with ample kitchens and baths and outside terraces. This was hardly the model of social housing.

But, almost miraculously in 1999, the city decided to try to do something about Bouça. The site had been left in its unfinished state for about three decades. But during this time the city had changed and the site, close to the city center, was now served by a metro and was too valuable to be left in this condition. Siza’s reputation had grown as the result of major commissions like the Architecture Faculty and the School of Architecture, and the Serralves museum and many other important buildings for which he had received major awards like the Pritzker Prize in 1992. Along with the acceptance of Portugal into the European Union and Porto’s role as European Cultural Capital in 2001, this contributed to a heightened sense of national pride. This run-down site, in the center of the city, was seen as a source of national embarrassment and in 1999 it was decided to restore and rebuild Bouça. What had been an example of emergency housing for poor residents was now seen as a model for residential development for central Porto.

The new Boca was completed with very few changes from the original design. The original buildings were to be completely restored and the remaining elements built as designed to include about 130 dwellings. The original residents kept their apartments. The north wall now forms a gateway to a new metro station along the original tracks. The community buildings form several special elements along Rua da Boavista at the south edge of the site. While these buildings were definitely treated as special objects that are partially detached from the residential blocks, in their built version they seem much more like precedents for later projects: Duarte, Vila do Conde, and the School of Architecture. One level of basement parking was provided in the new design. The courtyards were landscaped, however, because of the parking level, this was limited to paving and grass except in the unexcavated eastern court where an alleé was planted. The pristine condition of the recently completed project is a far cry from the intense ad hoc landscape of hedges, potted plants and flowers, and clotheslines of all kinds hung from the facades that had accumulated over the 30-year occupation of the ruins. The repetitive external stairs of the lower maisonettes that formed theater-like seating overlooking the stage of the space of the courtyard are yet to be fully occupied, however, the prospects of a more communal relationship between building and courtyard seems plausible. The change in the site circulation pattern brought about by the completion of the circulation to the upper galleries, the public passage through the courtyards to the metro station, and the change in the economic and demographic nature of the new tenants suggest a more communal quality to the courtyards.

The ingenious plans and sections of Siza’s maisonettes seem to have withstood the test of time and they survived almost intact aside from the restoration that was needed after over 30 years of very hard use. Designed as what was certainly considered to be extravagant housing for the original tenants, they ended up being ideal for use by a completely different demographic group of upwardly mobile young professionals, with needs for flexible space, room for young children, space for a home office and, the convenience and privacy of two level dwellings. The architects also took cues from tenant modifications to the old buildings that had occurred over the years. Modifications include security gates in the entrance porches, sliding windows and glass enclosures on the upper maisonette terrace to create a small solarium, shutters on the windows, a sliding wall in the living space of the lower marionettes allowing the room to be divided and used for secondary use of some kind, and dividing the baths so that the bath and WC were separate enclosures. These were small details that improved the quality of the dwellings without substantially changing the overall building appearance. Siza’s minimalist pallet, a simple, functional interior arrangement, a very basic set of window sizes that are arranged in very sophisticated concatenated compositions, and the use of the set-back at the upper floors, a move to soften the zeilenbau massing of repetitive slabs--a move reinforced by the borrowing of Taut’s red walls from Britz--and the avoidance of the blank end walls endemic to the zeilenbau residential slab, are the driving concepts behind this project. While the completion of Bouça is certainly a story with a happy ending, a sad footnote is that Siza’s other SAAL experiment, Sao Victor was demolished at about the same time as the rebuilding of Bouça.

Frampton, Kenneth, Nuño Portas, Alexander Alves Costa, Pierluigi Nicolini, Siza, Poetic Profession, Electra/Rizzoli, 1986, pp. 72-86.

Architecture + Urbanism, Dec. 1980, pp. 58.

Dos Santos, José Paulo (ed), Alvaro Siza Works and Projects 1954-1992, Gili, Barcelona, 1993, pp. 104-7.

Wang,Wilfried (ed), Bouça Residents Association Housing, Center for American Architecture and Design, University of Texas, Austin, c. 2008.

A V Monografias 126, 2007, pp. 98-105

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